This Column first appeared in Salon and is reposted here with permission.
As your professor, I plan to take your money, never read your essays and pretend you’re not checking Facebook. By Adam Mansbach
The following syllabus is for my new class, English 401: The Short Novel, meeting Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:10-2:50pm.
Course Description In this class, we will analyze some of World Literature’s greatest short novels in an attempt to interrogate the essence of plot and character while reading as few words as possible. Each class session will begin with a student presentation of 15 to 20 minutes, so we’re looking at an effective class time of about an hour. I’d love to give you a five-minute break halfway through the period, with the tacit understanding that we actually blow 15, but then I’d have to pretend I didn’t notice when 36% of you didn’t bother to come back. Or I’d have to pass around the attendance sheet again, which is a major pain in the ass.
After the student presentation, which should cover structure and theme but will seldom rise above rote plot summary, I will provide whatever historical and biographical context is both critical to our understanding of the book and available on Wikipedia. But I will sound so authoritative and well-versed that you’d never know this, even if you had the book’s Wikipedia page open on the laptop you’re pretending to take notes on, rather than your Facebook newsfeed.
The rest of the period will be spent in class discussion, which by week three will have settled into an “Inside the Actor’s Studio”-esque conversation between me and one or two consistently prepared students whom the rest of you will quietly despise. Occasionally, another student may come out of nowhere, Jeremy Lin style, and dominate a particular class, only to break my heart by fading permanently back into the woodwork the following week, Jeremy Lin-style.
Books Course books are available at the campus bookstore. Please refrain from contacting me eight weeks from now to say that the book we’re discussing tomorrow is sold out and you are thus unable to do the reading. What if you went to the store to buy toilet paper, and they were out of it? Correct: You’d go to another store. Or, even better, you’d anticipate your need for toilet paper and purchase it before the moment of desperation. I am not comparing the great short novels of world literature to toilet paper.
Contact Information No, you may not have my email address because I’m sick of the way you sidle up to me at the beginning of class and ask if I got the hysterically punctuated excuse you fired off at five this morning or seven nanoseconds before class started. I’m also fed up with receiving emails from your mom and your older sister explaining how rough this semester has been for you, what with the suspended license and the new gluten allergy, and telling me why I should cut you some slack. To say nothing of the sadness that blooms in my soul like a dark flower when I receive emails from students at addresses such as KindBuddz420@gmail.com and SexiLexi69@me.com.
This semester, we’re going to try something different. Here is the phone number to my home, where I live with my wife and kids and, for all you know, one or more disabled elderly persons: 228-1745. If what you have to tell me about the unfairness of my grading policy is important enough to call, dial away. Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Grading Policy My grading policy is to remain above the fray. Your assignments will be read by Scott, the Teaching Assistant. If you question me about your marks, I will plead ignorance. If pressed, I will strongly imply that Scott holds some kind of mystical or legal sway over me and that I am powerless to alter his decisions. Scott and I have worked all this out ahead of time; he is the Bad Cop and I am the Kindly Aloof Genius. Let me be clear: It would take a major act of God – not the kind of thing they consecrate saints for these days, but a plague of cigar-chomping Labradoodles plummeting from the heavens – for me to read a single word you have written.
Exams There will be a midterm and a final. Both will be Scantron exams. I feel awful about this, because evaluating your understanding of literature via multiple choice goes against everything I believe in. But there are a lot of you, and your handwriting tends to be illegible, and even Scott has his limits. I will, of course, write a couple of quirky “extra credit” questions on the board halfway through each test (“Who would win in a bar fight, Clarice Lispector or Thomas Bernhard? Show your work.”), acting as though I have just made them up. Your final exam will not be given during finals week, but rather during the reading period preceding it. I will claim that this is to beneficially stagger your schedule, but even you will see through that one.
Academic Honesty Please note that Scott is excellent at ferreting out plagiarism, particularly the incompetent, undergraduate variety in which the writing style veers from Late Caveman to Deconstructivist within a single paragraph. Plagiarism is an expellable offense, and I am obligated to report all incidents to the Dean.
Realistically, I doubt they’d expel you if your tuition check cleared, and there’s no way I’m reporting anything to the Dean. I don’t actually know who the Dean is, and the last thing I want to do is draw His attention. What I will be looking for is remorse, as expressed through tears or a certain ashen, petrified quality. I will then give you a zero on the paper, accept your gratitude stoically, and avoid making eye contact with you for the remainder of the semester.
Office Hours Are by appointment only.